Ephesus Turkey, discovering the Ancient City

Sun 30 Jul 2023

Ephesus Turkey, discovering the Ancient City

Ephesus Turkey: A Short History

The history of Ephesus is a long one, going back to the 10th century b.c.e., and its founding story quite mysterious. Was it founded by a Greek prince of Athens according to a prophecy from the oracle of Delphi? Or maybe, as later Greek historians believed, by Ephos, queen of the Amazons? Regardless, this city on the Ionian coast of modern day western Turkey would become one of the most important cities of antiquity. Its location with its thriving port was much desired (and much conquered) during her long and fascinating history.  

By 133 b.c.e. Ephesus was under Roman rule and by 27 b.c.e. the city became the capital of Asia Minor. This was the beginning of the age of August and the city thrived. Ephesus was to become the center of trade, a cosmopolitan center of culture and learning with a diverse population. By the second century the city was graced with theaters, libraries, market places, and temples beautifully decorated in local marbles. Its wide streets graced with elegant covered porticos were impressive. Also impressive was the cities system of aqueducts, bringing an enormous flow of water to a population that is estimated to have been over 200,00 residents. During the feast of Artemis this number was believed to have tripled with the tourists entering the city for the festivities. 

During the Byzantine period Ephesus continued to thrive. Now a very Christian city, the focus shifted from the old temple of Artemis to sites of great importance for early Christianity. St. Paul is known to have lived in Ephesus in the early 50’s and wrote his letter to the Corinthians here. But not all Ephesians were open to Paul’s message. At some point mob was raised against him by an angry silversmith frustrated at his lack of business selling souvenirs for the goddess Artemis!

It was also in Ephesus that St. John is believed to have come, settled and brought the Virgin Mary with him. Tradition has it that St. John wrote his gospel in Ephesus and it was here where both he and the Virgin died. 

Showing the importance of Ephesus in the Christian world at this period, it was the site chosen for the Third Ecumenical Council of 431, when Mary was officially declared. THEOTOKOS, Mother of God. Many important churches were built in the city, like the 6th century Basilica of St. John, built by the emperor Justinian I. The church was built over the site believed to be burial place of St. John.   

The decline of Ephesus was twofold. Invasions began with the Arabs in the 8th century. Later the Seljuk Turks. Although the Byzantines retook the city, by the 14th century as small though it became, it was conquered. At the same time, hundreds of years of build up of silt from the river had long cut the city off from the Aegean Sea. Its importance was long gone and the city became abandoned. 


Today Ephesus is thought to be Turkey’s most important archeological site. It is one of the world’s most well preserved Greco-Roman cities and a must see when visiting Turkey. It brings visitors and pilgrims from all over the world to see what is left of the majesty and grandeur of what was once the crown jewel of the Aegean. 


Visiting the Ancient City


A Walk through daily life in the beautifully preserved ancient city. 

ancient latrine 

A walk through the city of Ephesus transports you easily back in time. Walk the Arcadian Way, the long road leading from the old harbor to the city center, here you can see remnants left to right of what were impressive porticos gracing both sides of the street. You can almost hear the shouts from local merchant tucked inside the porticos shade, trying to get your attention and sell their ware. 

The Theater


The end of the street brings you to the Great Theater, till impressive today. In the city’s height it held approximately 24,000 spectators, making it one of the largest theaters of the Roman world! Visit the Agora, or market place the center daily life within the city and of course the Library of Celsus. This elegant building which has become the symbol of the archeological site, was a gift from the wealthy Roman Tiberius Julius Acquila in honor of his father, proconsul of Ephesus. Statues set into the facade represent Wisdom, Intelligence, Knowledge, and Virtue. There are temples worth a visit like the one dedicated to the emperor Domitian, baths, brothels and latrines. A true step back in time.  

The Library of Celsus

The amazing painted houses.

Ancient Fresoes


You can also visit a series of houses discovered in 1960 and now beautifully restored. They range from the 1st to the 7th centuries. Many still maintain colorful frescoes and lovely mosaics. These houses being upper middle class, give a good look into the true wealth of the city. 


The Temple that made Ephesus a tourist destination in the age of the Roman Empire. 

Recreation of the Temple of Artemis 

The festival of the Artemisia was one of the most popular of the ancient world. During the Roman period it was highly promoted, even by Roman emporers. Statues of the divinity could be found throughout the Greco-Roman world. Where Diana is typically depicted with her bow and hunting dog, Diana of Ephesus is connected to fertility and she is seen in almost pillar like form, with a high walled crown, legs tight together with rows of animals depicted and of course her chest covered in what seems to be multiple breasts but most likely eggs.

Site of the Temple   


Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis is probably the one single structure that made the city famous. The temple was said to have been built by the Lydian king Croesus in the middle of the 6th century b.c.e. In fact, a column was discovered which bares an inscription, ‘dedicated by Croesus’. The temple was in fact massive, 129.5 meters in length and 68.6 meters wide, making it about double the size of the Parthenon in Athens. Although little remains, the site with its single column and remains of its enormous base is well worth the visit.


Interesting Christian Sites


Cave of the seven sleepers

Cave site


Legend has it that in 251, during the Christian persecutions under the reign of the Decius, a group of young men, refusing to turn their backs on their Christian beliefs and make sacrifices as the emperor wished, took refuge in a cave outside of Ephesus. Realizing that they were not going to change their ways the Romans had the cave door sealed. The cave was not opened until the 5th century by chance and to the surprise of those opening it the sleepers who were still inside inside awoke! In fact they were shocked upon exiting and making their way back to the city quietly for food, seeing many buildings with crosses. Others in the city were surprised to see someone trying to use such ancient coins. 

The story of the sleepers is told not only in Christian references from the middle ages but also in the Quran. The numbers of the sleepers vary legend to legend, and in Islam the number of the sleepers is said to be known by Allah alone. The cave today is the site of a ruined church and below it contains many tombs, most dating from the 5th and 6th centuries. 


The House of the Virgin Mary 

The House of the Virgin Mary

In the hills outside of Ephesus, high up with lovely views of the Aegean, you can discover the house of the Virgin Mary. It is believed that in this spot St. John stayed with Mary during her last years. The location, which was lost to time was rediscovered after a German nun and mystic, who had never been to the site, described it in great detail in the later 18th and early 19th century. Today the site is an important and sacred place to both Christian and Muslim tourists alike and even three Popes. 

Altar inside the House of the Virgin Mary

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